The Stanford men’s volleyball team’s bid for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation (MPSF) tournament championship came up just short on Saturday night, as the Cardinal fell to fourth-seeded UC-Irvine in five tight sets, 20-25, 25-27, 25-21, 25-21, 15-12 in the championship match.
Despite winning the first two sets, Stanford (22-7, 17-5 MPSF) was not able to put away UC-Irvine (24-5, 17-5) and instead finds itself on the outside looking in at the four-team NCAA tournament. USC was chosen as the sole at-large selection by the NCAA tournament committee, thanks to its regular-season MPSF championship and its season sweep of the Cardinal. With the loss, the careers of the members of Stanford’s all-time winningest senior class — Evan Barry, Gus Ellis, Charley Henrikson, Dylan Kordic, Brad Lawson, Erik Shoji and Jake Vandermeer — came to a close. The group finished with an overall record of 86-33, good for a .723 winning percentage.
The seniors certainly didn’t go out without a fight. Lawson and Shoji, who have combined for seven All-America honors, were again terrific for the Cardinal in the final match of their respective careers. Lawson registered 23 kills and 11 digs for the Cardinal while Shoji had 12 digs in the losing effort. Stanford also received strong performances from sophomores Steven Irvin and Brian Cook, who combined for 31 kills and 21 digs. It just wasn’t enough for Stanford however, which was out-hit .405 to .314 for the match.
Uncharacteristically for the Cardinal, it was the defense that betrayed the squad this time around, similar to what happened the last time these two teams met. UC-Irvine’s hitting percentage was the highest by any Stanford opponent since the two teams met on March 3 in an Anteaters victory, when Irvine hit .411.
“I think our defense struggled during the majority of the match both from a blocking and digging standpoint, but credit goes to their attackers for making it difficult on us,” Lawson said. “They are a very balanced offensive team when they pass well, and it didn’t help that they were consistently in system during the later part of the match.”
As good as UC-Irvine’s attack was for the latter half of this match, the Cardinal had control for much of the match. The Cardinal actually outhit the Anteaters for the first two sets of this match, and unsurprisingly, this was when the men of Maples had their greatest success.
With the first set even at nine, the Cardinal embarked on a 7-2 run and never looked back, highlighted by two kills by sophomore Eric Mochalski and an ace and a kill by Lawson. Irvin led the Cardinal with five kills in the set.
The second set proved to be the most competitive between the two squads, a back and forth affair in which neither team ever led by more than four points. Despite an early barrage led by Mochalski that put the Cardinal up 10-7, the Anteaters continuously battled back, eventually evening the set at 18 on a combined block by junior Chris Austin and sophomore Scott Kevorken. Despite having the momentum in its favor, though, UC-Irvine was never able to gain the lead in the set, despite fighting off two set points. The Cardinal went up two sets to none on a kill by Ellis.
UC-Irvine was able to turn the tide of the match behind some strong defense in the third set. The Anteaters registered as many blocks, five, in the set, as Stanford did for the entire match. A block by senior Austin D’Amore on Mochalski gave UC-Irvine a 9-6 lead, which it clung onto until a rare block by Stanford tied the set at 18 and gave the Cardinal the definitive momentum. It was not to be for Stanford on this night, however, as a kill by senior Dan McConnell and a block by junior Kevin Tillie quickly gave the Anteaters a two-point cushion that they would not relinquish.
The final two sets would be a hitting clinic by UC-Irvine, which registered 36 kills against just one error in the final two sets. Stanford had no answer for Irvine’s quartet of attackers, orchestrated masterfully by setter Chris Austin.
It was the second-consecutive comeback for UC-Irvine down two sets to none, as they had rallied to defeat top-seed USC on their home floor the night prior.
“For our players to have the emotional energy to do it again for the second straight match is amazing to me,” said UC-Irvine head coach John Speraw.
The heartbreaking loss marked the end of another stellar campaign for Stanford, which advanced past the first round of the conference tournament for just the third time since 1997.